In Response To “The Singularity Is Near”

From my own point of view, I can accept those three core arguments at face value. After all, advanced technology has become extremely prevalent in my lifetime via the Internet. I’ve witnessed the increasing pace of size reduction and technology prices first hand with computing – desktop to laptop to handheld. As a computer programmer, I create mathematical models of complex objects all the time, so I see it as feasible that if you knew the rules of the brain and mind, you could represent that on a fast enough computer. And if we have all of these technologies in place, it would seem unlikely that humans won’t take advantage of them. It may seem as though I’m making Kurzweil’s arguments for him. Where we differ is in the outcome and implications of those three predictions. For example, I find disturbing his apparent lack of respect for the material that makes up our world and the universe. He feels that the universe is simply there for our consumption, and we should use it to it’s fullest extent. Kurzweil views the industrial age and the resultant global warming as the price of progress and as something that we will soon be able to rectify through applied technology. I feel that so far, as a species, we haven’t gotten a lot right in the area of environmental care taking. Slowly I see that starting to change with an expansion of awareness on ecological issues. I can’t imagine that we would blindly consume everything in the observable universe. (As an aside, many scientists currently think that our universe is “flat” and infinite, and Kurzweil’s writing doesn’t seem to address this concept. I wonder if he imagines that given an infinite amount of time that our computing civilization could consume an infinite amount of matter.)

Also, I am fearful of what a single computer-based super-intelligence would decide to do, let alone billions of them. We won’t be able to predict this behavior, and we won’t know what their decisions would be until they exist. What about the ethical implications of creating a non-biological entity with the emotional capacity of a human? Kurzweil would argue that we would be able to give these entities a high quality of life — albeit a virtual one, an artificial appearance of environment. But again, we won’t know with certainty until we try it. How could we justify such an experiment to ourselves? What if the entity was in constant agony? How could we risk it?

Perhaps people will not decide to upload their consciousnesses to this vast supercomputer network. Kurzweil says that people will ponder this decision the same way today we wonder about whether or not to get a cell phone, or whether or not to shop online, that by the time we get there, it may not seem like a big deal to most of us. However, these comparisons minimize the implications of creating what would be a conscious entity. No one should ever take lightly the responsibility of creating a child. I don’t see this as being much different.

And there is nothing in our history of technology to say that we won’t make mistakes in any such process. We haven’t made any cars that don’t break down, or knives that don’t dull. This leads me to be instinctively skeptical about the reliability of any proposed technology. How will we build (the necessarily) perfect software to run our minds’ “operating system”? Today when my computer crashes, I get annoyed and reboot it. In the future when my mind crashes, I will have a near-death experience — and who will be around to restart me ?

I am not gung-ho about all of these “advances”. I’ve laid out some of the questions I have about the practicalities and implications of all of this, few of which Kurzweil addresses. When he does address them, it is only cursorily. Perhaps he sees them as out of scope, since his only concern is to layout the groundwork for this eventuality. He describes this transformation as basically inevitable. In his view, the essence of being human is our ability to “overcome our limitations”. He sees this as an almost unstoppable evolutionary force. To him, nothing short of the end of capitalism and a world-wide totalitarian regime will stop it.

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